Ray Richmond contributes to Deadline’s TV coverage.
It’s difficult to imagine a more celebrated scenario than that AMC’s Breaking Bad will enjoy on Sunday night as it wraps up six seasons (or 5 ½, take your pick) and 62 brilliant episodes with a 75-minute, presumably cataclysmic finale. The gritty, dark, meth-laced drama is generating live viewer numbers exceeding 6 million, or roughly 500% greater than viewership for its maiden season in 2008. AMC was able to sell out its ad inventory for the final episode while reportedly asking between $300,000 and $400,000 for a 30-second spot. And the network has been running every episode of the series as a marathon this week leading into the climax. The TV Academy just last Sunday crowned it as television’s outstanding drama series while critics fall all over themselves in declaring Breaking Bad as one of the greatest – if not the greatest – shows in the medium’s history. Meanwhile, the series has become perhaps the definitive game-changing phenomenon in terms of binge-viewing on DVD and over Netflix, Amazon and iTunes and as a social media marvel over Twitter. Anyone who dares try to divulge an ill-timed spoiler has risked cyber wrath on a grand scale, if not outright physical harm.
Related: Emmys 2013: ‘Breaking Bad’ Triumphs On Night Of Upsets
And yet in the rush to venerate the show as a pop culture sensation throughout its final eight-episode campaign, it’s easy to forget that the series that’s earned stars Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul and Anna Gunn a combined six Emmy statuettes (half of them for Cranston) was in the beginning a cult diversion at best. Breaking Bad debuted in 2008 with an underwhelming 1.2 million total viewers and rarely exceeded 2 million through its first four seasons. The critics raved like they rarely rave, but mostly noted that this was the finest show no one was watching. In fact, during tense negotiation with the cost-conscious AMC in 2011, Sony Pictures TV reportedly sent out feelers to three other networks to see if they might be interested in picking up BB past season four. AMC apparently was interested in renewing it for only 6 or 8 episodes rather than what would become a total of 16 for the supersized, two-pronged fifth season.
It wasn’t until that first part of the fifth season in 2012 that the Breaking Bad numbers began to spike up to 2.5 million. Word started to get out that The Little Meth Show That Could was a spectacular piece of serialized drama. Seemingly overnight, the buzz surrounding the series went from “Too dark and violent” to “Spectacularly written and flawlessly-acted.” And as the late-blooming BB grew into its body, seemingly everyone with a Netflix subscription started dedicating weekends to playing catch-up in binge fashion. Creator Vince Gilligan took a moment in the Emmy spotlight backstage last Sunday to declare, “I feel like Netflix kept us on the air. It’s a bold new era in television, and we’ve been fortunate to reap the benefits of the technological developments.” He added, “I don’t even think our show would have lasted beyond season two without video streaming on demand, social media and the Internet component.”
So clearly, one of the enduring lessons of the series is its demonstration that the Netflixes can be partners rather than competitors. Perhaps another is that patience is more than merely a virtue; it’s often a savvy business move, too. AMC obviously looks incredibly smart now for having stuck with Breaking Bad when it was just another acclaimed drama with an elite (read: tiny) audience. But one can also argue that the network and the show’s producers set the table for making this series-ending popularity explosion happen by allowing nearly a year to pass between seasons 5A and 5B, allowing the tension and spectacle to build with tantalizing slowness leading up to the August premiere while also giving viewers more than 10 months to binge-watch the previous 54 installments. By the time the show came back for its final lap, anticipation was at something of a fever pitch. It was in hindsight a genius stroke as shrewd as any that the Bad writers have pulled off, even if it was mostly borne out of production logistics and scheduling.
The aw-shucks Gilligan is fond of telling people (reporters in particular) that he isn’t nearly the genius he’s credited to be. “It’s such a collaborative effort,” he once told Deadline. “And if it weren’t for Bryan Cranston’s innate ability, people would not have stuck around for this story that I wanted to tell as long as they did.” Where Gilligan perhaps fails to give himself proper credit is in his not only building a storyline around such a complex, evolving and ultimately monstrous character as Cranston’s Walter White; it’s in his harnessing an entire production team to match his vision.
Erik Nelson, a producer of such projects as the feature film Grizzly Man and the upcoming JFK: The Final 24 on National Geographic Channel, moonlit as a Breaking Bad recapper for Salon last year due to his fascination with the series. “The thing that strikes me as significant about it,” he said, “is what a great collaborative art it was. Vince Gilligan micromanaged an incredible creative team of writers, actors and directors, and somehow managed to spontaneously combust those elements into a unified, disciplined, logical yet totally spontaneous and surprising creation. And he and his team clearly just made it up as they went along.” Indeed, Gilligan has repeatedly admitted that he had “no idea” where the series would conclude when he launched it in ’08 and had only a vague notion heading into seasons four and five. “In the early going I thought Jesse Pinkman’s (Paul) character should die at the end of season one,” Gilligan admitted. “I also thought that the show should probably last no more than about three seasons total…It’s gotten a lot darker and richer than I ever thought it would or could.”
In agreeing with Gilligan’s take on things, Nelson added, “The sum (has been) far greater than the parts, but each part was amazing. It truly is the Sergeant Pepper’s of episode TV. And I think people will be looking back on it in decades to come with that same sort of wonder. These kinds of happy – or in this case, very unhappy – accidents don’t come around very often.”
Yet Breaking Bad will live on after Sunday night, even if Heisenberg probably won’t. A prequel series starring Bob Odenkirk as his oily storefront lawyer Saul Goodman has been greenlit at AMC. But it’s clear that something else will be dying on Sunday: The speculation guessing game that has united fans as few television phenomena have previously. What isn’t going down anytime soon are the careers of those involved in the series, exiting it on the kind of high they’ve never experienced before and surely never will again.